Lawyers of Pakistani Christian pastor Zafar Bhatti said their client and another man were shot dead Thursday in their prison cell after both were charged with blasphemy, or insulting the religion of Islam.
The pastor and 70-year old British citizen Muhammad Asghar were allegedly murdered by the police near Pakistan’s capital city of Islamabad.
Zafar Bhatti was said to be an activist who worked to protect the rights of Pakistan’s Christian minority. Before the shooting, he was locked up awaiting trial for sending text messages that apparently were interpreted as insulting to the Prophet Mohammed’s mother. Bhatti’s family has said all along that it was not his phone that sent the text messages, because they allegedly had proof that the cell phone in question was not registered in the pastor’s name.
A recent poll showed that 75 percent of Pakistanis supported the country’s blasphemy laws that order insulting Islam as punishable by death. Some have suggested that the laws are frequently applied as a weapon against Christian and Ahmadi Muslim religious minority citizens.
As of March of this year, Pakistan had fourteen citizens on death row and another nineteen serving out life sentences for blasphemy charges.
Xavier Williams of human rights NGO Life For All said regarding the pastor’s execution: “This is a barbaric act. There had been threats. The court should have instructed police to ensure Bhatti’s safety. Killing of a person who was falsely accused is mockery of the judicial system. The protectors of the innocent have become the predators.”
Before his death, the pastor’s family told Life For All that he had received a plethora of death threats from both fellow inmates and corrections officers.
William Stark, a regional manager for the International Christian Concern, told the Christian Post: “This most recent incident involving Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law should once again bring the abuse of this law back into international discussion.”
Stark added: “Unfortunately, pressure from Islamic radical groups and general discrimination against Christians in Pakistan has transformed trial courts into little more than rubber stamps for blasphemy accusations brought against Christians, regardless of the evidence brought to bear in the case. Also, little is done to ensure the safety of those merely accused of blasphemy, leading to the deaths of at least 48 people, many of whom could have been proven innocent.”